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Soul Survivor

By I. Beacham

Smashwords Edition

Copyright 2017 I. Beacham

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Soul Survivor

Internationally acclaimed American journalist Josephine “Joey” Barry is considered one of the most iconic correspondents of her time, having reported on major crises from many of the world’s hotspots. But everything crumbles when rebel insurgents near the Syrian border attack and kill her team, forcing her to hide. Rescued but traumatized, she finds she can no longer cope with who she once was, breaking down on national television during a live political debate.

Sent to England to try to get her mojo back, her path crosses the Reverend Samantha “Sam” Savage, a charismatic vicar with an appetite for compassion and motor biking. Non-believer Joey is drawn to her, not knowing Sam is struggling with her own demons. Can their love grow through such adversity?

Soul Survivor

© 2017 By I. Beacham. All Rights Reserved.


ISBN 13: 978-1-62639-883-2


This Electronic book is published by

Bold Strokes Books, Inc.

P.O. Box 249

Valley Falls, NY 12185


First Edition: April 2017


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.


Credits

Editor: Cindy Cresap

Production Design: Susan Ramundo

Cover Design By Sheri (graphicartist2020@hotmail.com)

By the Author

Sanctuary


The Rarest Rose


Salvation


Soul Survivor

Acknowledgments

Huge thanks as always to Cindy Cresap, my editor. Her editorial brilliance improves my books tenfold.

Dedication

To RZ—Thank you for all your help and enthusiasm.

A friend indeed.

Chapter One

Northern Syria near the Iraq border


Josephine Barry tucked her long hair behind an ear, breathed deeply, and composed herself. She looked into the camera.

“I’m standing in the small town of Balshir on the disputed boundary between El Sharai and Kabali. Behind me in the distance, you can see smoke from what was once a thriving town where cotton was farmed and where for centuries, Muslim and Christian lived together in peace. The rebel forces moved in months ago, and that town is now in ruins. There are rumors of daily brutality where rebels go from home to home butchering those inside. Their bloodthirsty fighters show no mercy to those who resist their reign of terror. Options are limited. Die fighting, be forced into brutal slavery, or be radicalized.

“Here in Balshir, so far untouched by this regional devastation, its people are nervous. Many are fleeing, believing there’s a high probability that the rebels will strike here next. This is a town where no one feels safe, and everyone is afraid. You can smell the fear. It’s contagious. Those left are the ones who can’t leave because they are ill or not strong enough.” Joey paused. “And they wait.”

Kurt Youngman waved a hand across his throat to signal cut.

“That’s wrapped, Joey. Light’s fading. I think we’re done for today.”

Joey, the chief news correspondent for RSB Broadcasts, relaxed.

I’m done with this place, Kurt,” she said. “Tomorrow can’t come soon enough to get out of here.”

The two of them walked off the balcony, back into the gray unattractive concrete block building.

Inside were a set of rooms that had been home for several days while Joey reported from this part of the war zone. It didn’t give much privacy to the four of them—Kurt and Mitch Jacobson, her two-man production team; and then Mohammad al-Salit, “Mo,” their guide and interpreter. But they coped.

“I hate this fucking heat,” Mitch said, kneeling as he put away equipment.

Kurt agreed. “When we hit base, I’m heading straight for the showers.”

It was the smell of the town that got to Joey. Its stench pervaded everywhere and locked onto the back of her throat making her cough. It was a sour odor that made her want to hold her nose and not breathe deeply. Totally the opposite of what she needed to do in this heat. Maybe a drink would help.

“You guys want tea? Whose turn to make it?”

“Yours,” Kurt and Mitch answered in unison.

She smiled. She knew the answer anyway but always tried her luck. Kurt knew too.

“Listen, Warrior Queen. All you do is stand around and talk to the camera. Don’t forget the real workers here. We make you look awesome for the American public. It isn’t easy.”

“No milk for me. I hate that powdered shit.” Mitch looked up at her with his usual lopsided grin, his face encased in a mop of blond hair. He looked like a teenager, but wasn’t. He had seven-year-old twin girls and a wife who doted on him.

Joey acquiesced and tipped her chin forward. “It’s lucky I love you guys.” As she turned to head for what was loosely termed the kitchen, Mo spoke.

“I go to the truck and get more water.”

You couldn’t drink the water here. It was contaminated. If you did, it gave you diarrhea, turned you dizzy, and made you sick.

Joey peered into the kitchen across the narrow passage that separated the room. There was still enough water in the plastic urn.

“Forget it, Mo. There’s enough to see us through until tomorrow.”

But Mo was already standing and making his way toward the door that led to the stone staircase and down one flight to the ground floor and building exit. “I get it anyway.”

He was gone.

A queer feeling came over Joey. Mo was a lovely man, warm and friendly, who was always showing them photos of his wife and three teenage daughters. He had been their guide before and pulled them out of trouble several times when they’d come across anti-Western locals. But Joey knew she wasn’t imagining it. These last few days he had been quiet. Too quiet.

She stepped back into the room. “What’s wrong with Mo?”

“Dunno,” Mitch said. The way he looked at her, she knew he’d noticed it too.

“He left a bit sharpish,” Kurt added.

She nodded. “You don’t think it was that banter we had the other night?”

“What?” Mitch asked.

“Where you guys were joshing me about all the women I’ve dated. He did go quiet.”

“You think?” Mitch pushed fingers through his hair.

She shrugged. “I don’t know…maybe he finds it offensive. His culture’s moral code is different from ours.”

“Nah,” Kurt said. “I don’t think so. Mo’s pretty progressive.”

“Maybe, but let’s curb those chats just in case.”

Both guys nodded.

She walked back toward the kitchen, crossing the ripped, faded linoleum as she moved across to the far wall where a basic stove and a sink were located. The sink sat on a poorly constructed wooden cabinet, its doors uneven, and the off-white paint peeling away. There was little else in the room except a table and four chairs that didn’t match.

Joey grimaced. She hadn’t said much, but she couldn’t wait to leave this town either. They’d been here too long the minute they arrived. Everything about it was wrong. Most of its people had left, and it felt like a ghost town, or worse, a place waiting for something nasty to happen. These last few days she’d been on constant edge—as had the others.

She started pouring the water out of the urn and into a saucepan. They didn’t even have the luxury of a kettle.

Joey did not finish her task.

The flash came first, then the explosion, its force slamming her hard against the metal edges of the sink, forcing her head down where it hit the faucets.

The smell of sulfur and an intense wave of heat had already assaulted her as she reclaimed her senses. She turned to look back toward the room she’d just left and where her colleagues were. All she could see was devastation—a room on fire, heavy smoke, debris. Joey could barely make out a gaping hole in the wall where the balcony had been. As she struggled to move back toward them, she heard gunfire and the unmistakable sound of AK-47 assault rifles. The sound grew louder. Whoever was behind the rifles, they were coming up the stone stairs toward her.

With a calculating calm Joey didn’t recognize, she speed-checked the kitchen for a place to hide. There was none, except the cabinet under the sink. Not bothering to think if she could fit inside it, she threw herself in, cramming her long body into the unyielding small space. She pulled the doors shut.

She heard the shouting of the gunmen, their harsh words that made no sense to her, a language too alien. But she understood their intent. They were searching. She heard them discharging their weapons again. Bile rose in her stomach as she realized what they were firing at.

Her team.

Her colleagues.

Her friends.

The shouting grew louder, and she heard something heavy falling to the ground. Masonry? Then she knew they were in the kitchen. She froze, ordering every bodily function in her to cease. In her mind she became invisible—a speck of dust, a cobweb unseen as they searched.

She heard two voices, still shouting and on an adrenaline high. They were dragging something heavy. There was a smashing of glass and then laughter, its sound repellant and unnatural.

The tone of the voices changed and grew questioning. Shuffling footsteps moved toward her hiding place and stopped. Then with a rustle of movement, Joey saw a cabinet door open. She shut her eyes tight knowing what was to happen.

But it didn’t.

The gunfire that followed came from the street below.

Someone shouted up, his voice commanding, guttural, and intolerant.

Orders.

Whoever was in the kitchen, they left abruptly. If they had opened the cabinet one second earlier, she would be dead now. But they hadn’t, and for the moment, Joey was alive.

*

Joey didn’t move from her hiding space. A toxic mixture of fear and common sense born of survival kept her there.

Gunfire surrounded her. She listened to the screaming in the streets below.

She heard gunmen in the stairwell and on the floors above her, their feet like rats scuttling. They were going from room to room, as she had reported earlier.

Several times, she thought they were in the room next to her, rifling for anything that survived the attack. She doubted anything had. They had either used a rocket or a grenade launcher. Nothing much ever survived either of those. She’d seen a weapon rocket launcher in the hands of a child some months back. It required little skill, and the enemy allowed their young to experience “the thrill.”

She waited for them to come and search the kitchen, but they never did.

The cabinet became her unlikely friend. It protected and cocooned her, and had already saved her life. Joey would not abandon it. Not yet. Not until she knew she had a chance to escape and live. She had been in dreadful situations before and survived. She still had an old scar where a bullet had ricocheted off a wall and hit her in the arm. So she would wait.

But waiting came at a cost.

The heat was intolerable. There was a slit of light where the doors joined. It became her contact with the outside world. She knew when it was night and day. Only once did she dare to open the doors and peep out. Thirst demanded the action. The sun had shone directly in her face as she’d searched for the water urn, but it was gone. She saw the rubble and dust on the floor. If she moved, she would leave a trail. It wasn’t worth the risk.

So she stayed put and suffered the confined space for another day. She’d always liked being tall. Now she wished she wasn’t.

Then the cramp came and was unforgiving, but she could not scream. That was a death sentence, and she wasn’t ready to die yet. Not here. Not like this.

Joey slowly moved a hand down to her left leg to attempt to massage the cramp out. Her fingers found wetness. Perhaps the pain wasn’t cramp. Had the explosion hurt her? She moved her hand around the leg seeking the point of injury, but found none. Her fingers didn’t feel sticky either, not like the blood from her head where it had hit the faucets.

She moved her hand back to her face and smelled it. Then she licked her fingers. It was water. A few dark forages later, she found a small leak in a pipe. She wrapped a handkerchief around it to soak the liquid. She knew what she was drinking was contaminated and that it would make her ill, but she had no choice. It became her lifeline, and for now, the water sustained her.

Time dragged but passed. The light through the cabinet door grew dark again. She waited many hours until the chanting and sounds of evil outside ceased. Even rebels slept.

Joey slowly pushed one of the doors open, her plan to simply stick her legs out and get circulation moving. As she extended one leg and began stretching it, something caught her eye. She saw the shadow of a man standing in the corridor that separated the kitchen from the room where her team had been. He had his back to her and she could just make out a rifle slung over a shoulder. In infinite slow motion, she drew her leg back into the cabinet and carefully pulled the door shut.

She heard him cough, then spit. She listened to the sound of rubble and debris crunching under his feet as he entered the kitchen. He stopped in the center of the room where the floor creaked as it had for her many times. Joey wondered if he knew she was here. Was he about to pounce and shoot her dead, or worse, drag her into the street for a ceremonial beheading of an infidel? Would pictures of her slaughter hit social media and air worldwide as many others had? How would her parents cope? It was their fear.

Her heartbeat grew fast and irregular, and her mouth went dry. She felt her muscles tense. Her mind focused, and she prepared for attack. She might get a chance to grab the gun before he fired. Better to die that way.

She heard the scraping of a chair as he sat down and the unambiguous sound of a match being struck to light a cigarette. She caught its smell and waited, like a deer caught in headlights, for him to finish his down time.

When he was done, he stood, but instead of leaving the room, Joey heard him walk over to the sink. Her adrenaline rose higher and made her lightheaded. He was inches from her but made no move to reveal her hiding spot. Instead she heard a rustling sound and then all went quiet. What the hell was he doing?

Then water trickled into the sink and down the drain. The bastard insurgent was urinating. Seconds later, he left.

Relief flooded Joey, but she couldn’t stem her tears.

Kurt had called her Warrior Queen.

Fear made the Warrior Queen wet herself.

*

The rebels seemed to have set up their HQ in the building. They were constantly in the stairwell, their comings and goings menacing. All day and late into the night, she would hear them talking, often ranting.

She continued to hide in her safe place, and another day passed where she wondered if she would ever stand up straight again.

It was the day after that when her situation worsened.

Her head hurt from where she’d hit it, and she was dizzy with the heat. Later, she threw up. Unable to do anything, she suffered the mess. Sweat ran down her face and her breathing became labored. Then the pains in her stomach started, and the diarrhea came.

Joey realized she’d lost count of what day it was, of how long she’d been under the sink. She began to drift into restless sleeps. If the insurgents didn’t kill her, the contaminated water might.

After one agitated sleep, she awoke with a start. She became aware of an eerie silence outside. For the longest time, she searched for sound, but there was nothing. No rifles firing, nobody shouting or screaming. Nothing.

For the third time, she dared to push the cabinet open and welcomed the fresher air that met her. No one stood in the shadows waiting for her. At first, she couldn’t move, her body was locked in position, but she pushed every ligament and tendon she had, forcing herself to crawl out of the space. It took time. Only when she was completely free of the cabinet did she try to stand, without success. So she pulled herself onto all fours and waited until she had sufficient strength to stand. When she could, the room spun, and she used a wall for support until the sensation passed.

Now she took stock of what was around her. Amid the mess and wreckage, she saw a trail of dried blood leading from the room where the explosion had been. The blood streaked across the linoleum and up to the broken kitchen window, its stains evident on the sill. Horror gripped her. She realized the dragging sounds had been either Kurt’s or Mitch’s body being thrown through it. Thrown like baggage.

Joey edged closer to the window, careful to avoid being seen or touching her friend’s blood. There was nothing outside except devastation. She saw dead bodies. They had been left to rot where they fell. She didn’t see her friends. The town was in ruins and its streets full of twisted metal and mounds of masonry where buildings had once stood. Nothing moved except a dog running around looking for food. She was hungry too.

She forced herself to enter the skeleton of the room where they had all last shared a laugh, afraid of what she might see. But there was nothing. No evidence that they’d ever been there. Nothing had survived. Even if it had, the rebels had picked it clean like locusts.

Joey crossed the room sticking close to the back wall since the floor looked unsafe, and there was no wall where the balcony had been. Fear flooded her, and her breath caught. What if all the rebels hadn’t left? What if they saw her?

She started down the stairs toward the exit below. A wave of dizziness hit her, and she lost her footing and fell to the bottom. For a moment, she didn’t move, and when she did, her shoulder hurt like crazy. Its pain bit into her, reminding her she was alive. It made her more determined to survive. She would get out of here. She would not die in this wasteland of a place.

She left the building, struggling to decide which way to go. Why couldn’t she remember which direction led back to base camp?

Joey stumbled through the streets, her legs occasionally giving way. She fell to the ground often. Sometimes she saw an old man or woman who had survived the carnage. They looked shell-shocked and wandered about without direction or purpose. If they saw her, they showed nothing. They didn’t try to approach her. It was as if she really was invisible. These last days, she had prayed for that.

She entered what once might have been termed a pretty market square. All she saw now were battered, blood-stained bodies, many hanging on poorly constructed crosses with handwritten placards around their necks. She couldn’t read their words but knew their accusatory meaning.

Her vision blurred and her head hurt. A dense fog and a feeling of confusion swirled in her mind. But then she sensed she wasn’t alone, and as she did, she remembered her purpose. She forced herself to stand erect.

“Are you getting this, Kurt?” she said. “Is the light okay? Stick with me…keep filming.”

She turned to look at him, but no one was there. A cold steel blade of fear ran through her. She was becoming delusional. If she lost her mind, she would die. She breathed in deeply. “I must find the road home. I must find the road home,” she started chanting the mantra. Surely if she said it enough times, the message would remain even if her mind didn’t…some automatic homing message?

She dragged her feet as she moved around the square, the headache increasing.

“I’m Josephine Barry, and I’m here in the town of…I can’t remember, Kurt. What’s this place called?” She frowned. Why couldn’t she recall that either? “It doesn’t matter. We’ll edit that later.” She pointed out front. “This is the market square, and you can see the carnage. Just like…all the other places. They destroy everything.”

She looked up. Familiarity and shock hit her.

Facing her was a decapitated head on a spike.

The face was Mo’s, their guide. Bruised, battered, bloodied, but recognizably him.

She stepped back and fell to the ground.

The placard attached to the spike held one word. She knew this one. Traitor.

Beheading was for those who betrayed Allah, the ones who worked for the infidels. They had known he was their interpreter.

“Get this, Kurt. Everyone must see this. No one must forget.” Her voice was hoarse.

She struggled to her feet.

“We’re losing light, but keep filming. We’re going to get out of here. We’ll walk back if we have to.”

Which way? I must find the road home.

She glanced up the main street to the left and then to the right. She still couldn’t work out the route back to base camp. It was stupid. She’d driven them all here. She knew the route. Why couldn’t she remember?

“We’ll have to walk, guys. This way…we’ll try this way.”

She fell again and the dust rose and stuck to her sweating face.

She threw up before resting on all fours and waiting for another wave of dizziness to pass.

“We’re not going to die here. We’re going home.”

I must find the road home.

Joey walked until the town disappeared behind her. She forced herself to put one foot in front of the other, but she was in bad shape and weakening. She should never have drunk the water.

Time distorted. Was it an hour later? Was it more? Was she still under the sink and this was an hallucination? Was she ever in Balshir? Would she wake in clean sheets to find this was a nightmare?

Joey saw something on the rough dirt road ahead of her. It looked like a dark blob on the horizon that shimmered in the heat of the sun like a mirage.

As she studied it, the blob grew bigger until she saw it was a large truck loaded with people. She could see them all over it, on its top, holding on to its sides.

The vehicle drew closer and she could see faces and make out their clothing. They wore fatigues and were brandishing weapons. They weren’t Westerners. She was walking into the hands of the rebels.

She stopped.

They would see her now; she couldn’t escape. But she wouldn’t stand and wait to be slaughtered.

With the little energy left in her body, she turned off the road and headed into the rocky terrain to her side. It was a meaningless act since there was no cover, no shelter.

She tripped and fell to her knees. Another wave of dizziness hit her.

It occurred to her that this was it then.

This was where she was going to die.

“Guys, we can stop filming now.”

Everything went black.

Chapter Two

The Reverend Samantha Savage, vicar of St. Mary and All Saints, Ribbley, parked outside the church and got out of her car.

She’d handed her life over to God’s work when she was in her teens, and until now, aged fifty-three years, the union had worked well. But it wasn’t today.

Sam leaned on the vehicle and looked at the imposing structure before her.

This was the largest parish church in Worcestershire with parts dating back to the eleventh century. It was a Grade One listed building and very important to the history of Ribbley. It had fine tower stands on the south side and niches for statues and paneled battlements. Beyond the expected services, important civic events took place here, and it was where organizations like the Scouts and Guides held their own services. The church was rooted in the core activities of the large town, which was why Sam was depressed.

As she looked across at the magnificent stained-glass windows and small turret containing a staircase to the nave roof, she growled.

Most of the roof was missing. There were structural defects that could no longer be ignored, and urgent roof repairs were taking place. The builders were in and had stripped half of the one side of the roof to the extent that she could see timbers that probably hadn’t seen the light of day for centuries. It was expensive work, and despite several grants, there was still much money to be raised. An appeal had been launched, and Sam just hoped everything would come together in time.

The bishop was coming to see her today for an update. She sighed. At least she could tell him everything was now moving in the right direction. The survey was done. The repairs were progressing. The finance was…coming along. What else could go wrong?

There was an almighty creaking sound that grew louder. Sam stared in horror as the remaining half of the roof disappeared from sight. She heard the heavy timbers crashing inside the church. At the same time, a mushroom cloud of dust and debris pushed up into the air.

As she stood there pulverized and in shock, she saw a ladder appear through the dust and a man’s face emerge. It was covered in white dust, and he looked like a ghostly apparition. He coughed a few times before waving to her. It was Bob Needham, the builder.

“It’s all right, Rev,” he shouted. “Bit of a setback, but looks worse than it is. No one hurt. We’ll have the mess cleared up in a jiffy.” He glanced back down into the building. “Well, it’ll be okay for Sunday service.” He smiled and threw her a thumbs-up before disappearing back down the ladder.

“Dear Lord, send me a miracle,” she sighed, looking up into the blue sky. At least it wasn’t raining. For that she was grateful.

Sam locked the car and made her way into the church, dreading what she would find. The scouts would be arriving in less than three hours, the choir was rehearsing later, and the bishop was due soon. It occurred to her that her ordination schooling many years ago had not stretched to broom skills. She was about to acquire on-the-job training.

*

Two hours later, the church was starting to fill with expected visitors.

Sam heard footsteps behind her in the aisle and turned to see the builder ambling toward her. His face wore purpose. Her heart sank.

“Oi, Rev.”

Sam reminded herself that his heart was in the right place even if his greetings etiquette wasn’t. “Where is the respect built on eons?” she said not without humor.

“You what?”

She raised her hand in capitulation. “No matter. What delicacy of news do you bring me? I hope it isn’t bad.”

“It depends on your point of view.” Bob sniffed and wiped his nose on his sleeve.

All God’s children, she thought.

“You know that miracle you’re always going on about?” he said.

“Yes?” Sam’s spirits lifted.

“You’re gonna need it.”

She bit her lip.

“Good news, bad news,” he continued.

Sam stiffened. “Spit it out.”

“The rafters in the east wing are full of woodworm.”

“Which will have to be treated,” she said.

“Too late for that,” he said. “They’ve been feasting for centuries. New timbers needed, I’m afraid.”

Sam raised fingers to her temples and circled. A headache was starting. “This is awful.”

“Doesn’t God revel in feeding the multitude?”

Bob’s attempt at humor fell flat. Sam was not impressed with his biblical knowledge.

“Not with church rafters, Bob. The bishop is not going to like this.”

She paused. “And the good news is?”

“Look on the bright side, Rev. Your congregation has increased tenfold.”

*

The St. Mary Scouts converged on the church like a swarm of tiny uniformed bees on a busy mission.

Unusually, the entire group was present. There was the Scout Beaver Colony, the Scout Cub Pack, and the Scout Troop. They were all children of varying ages, and all very alive and boisterous. They were using the church hall, attached and accessed through the main church, to prepare for a Summer Day parade. Today they were making seed bombs that were part of a “creative challenge” of reforestation, a technique of introducing compressed bundles of soil containing seeds into the environment where needed.

Part of their Summer Day Parade involved singing jamboree songs, and Maude Simpson was present to play the organ. Play was not a word Sam really associated with Maude’s musical abilities, but the partially deaf eighty-year-old woman tried hard. She was only supposed to be a temporary fix until a new organist could be found. The last incumbent had collapsed and died over the organ while playing, “Nearer my God to Thee.”

Maude had just hit a wrong note, making Sam flinch, when the bishop arrived.

Bishop Neil Covey-Smartingdon walked confidently down the aisle. He was a huge bear of a man with a constant look of amusement always resting on his handsome features.

Sam liked him the minute she met him. They had trained and been ordained together many years ago. She considered him and his family her closest of friends.

He walked up to her and gave her a warm hug.

“You’re looking well.” His natural enthusiasm for life echoed in his voice. He glanced down at a pew and picked up a scout booklet. “Guerrilla Gardening Seed Bomb Guide,” he read aloud. “Is this serious?”

Sam couldn’t hide a smile. “Yes.”

“They’re not doing it here?”

“Yes.”

“Actual bombing?” His confusion made her laugh.

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Practice,” she said.

“Right.” His focus changed. “I like what you’ve done to the roof.”

Sam sighed. This was so typical of Neil. Nothing ever seemed to faze him. It was probably why he’d made bishop. He looked at her and must have seen the exasperation on her face.

“Okay, okay. Be calm, Sam.”

“I’m having a bad day, Neil.”

“What’s wrong?”

“What’s wrong? Everything is wrong. Look at the mess. It’s going to cost a fortune.”

“You’ve launched a public appeal for funds. Money’s coming in.” His calm voice resonated around the church.

It had no effect on Sam. “We’ll never raise the sort of money to meet the costs of these repairs, Neil. You could probably build a cheaper church.”

“Now you’re being dramatic.”

“I’m not, and you know it. This is a Grade One building. This baby eats money like…roof termites chomping wood.” She grimaced at the irony.

The bishop rested an appeasing hand on her shoulder. “Emergency repairs will stave off the bigger jobs and give us time.”

“You think? The rain’s been running down the walls.”

“But it’s sunny now.”

“It’s got into the organ.”

As if by provident timing, Maude hit a few wrong keys.

The bishop flinched. “Ah, so it has.”

“No. That’s Maude,” she said. “I need a new organist.”

They looked up onto a raised level where Maude was playing. She wore a multicolored shapeless hat, and a cigarette hung off her lips.

“Smoking’s banned inside churches,” Neil said without any real thought.

“You can tell her then,” Sam scoffed. “She’s already threatened to walk out unless we stop the leak and fix the organ.”

More wrong notes filled the air.

Neil screwed his eyes shut as if in pain. “That might be a blessing. You need a miracle.”

“I need several, but no one is listening.” Sam cast her eyes to the heavens.

“God’s backlog of work, I expect.”

“I don’t doubt it.”

Sam was thinking of her own burgeoning list of things to do.

She took him through to the vestry where they could talk without interruption, and briefed him on the update of the roof, including the infestation of hungry mouths.

“That’s not all, Neil. When am I going to get a treasurer?”

The post had been vacant for nearly five months. Peter Asprey had left her in the lurch when his lotto numbers came up and he won a decent amount of money. He left shortly after to go live with his sister in New Zealand.

Peter’s gain had been Sam’s loss.

The position of treasurer was pivotal. Appointed by the church council, treasurers were responsible for many thousands of pounds flowing through the church funds. They carried out the financial decisions made by the diocese and national church, and were also responsible for both raising and spending money. Until Peter had resigned, he had done all of this competently. Sam’s problem was that no one wanted to replace him, especially as the task now involved the major project of renovation and all that entailed.

Sam was filling the gap. Drafting annual budgets and proposing financial objectives was not what she saw as her role as vicar. It gobbled up her time and placed no amount of stress on her shoulders.

The bishop shook his head. “I’m working on it and pushing the church council, but we haven’t had many volunteers.”

“How many?” Sam asked hopefully.

“None.”

At least Neil showed remorse. She knew he was trying hard. It just didn’t help her predicament.

“I’m no bookkeeper, Neil. Please keep trying. And I suppose now isn’t a good time to ask about an increase in vicars for this parish?” She eyed him. “The bigger the parish, the more vicars needed.”

Neil didn’t bother to answer. They both knew there was a manpower shortage of clergy, and that many parishes were waiting for the newly ordained. It was happening all over the Christian world. Kids finished school and went straight into other careers to become lawyers, doctors, IT specialists, and so on. They weren’t heading for theological college. Clergy now were mature men and women leaving their careers late to enter the church.

“How’s the roof appeal going?” Neil asked.

“The local newspaper has run an article for me, and some money has trickled in. It’s generated some interest in a radio station in Birmingham. They’re going to send someone to interview me.”

“Excellent.”

“They want to know about the history of the church, its issues. I’ll do anything that raises our profile and—”

Neil stopped her.

“You’re letting this all get on top of you. If the money doesn’t come in, then the diocese will have to raid their own coffers and fund the repairs. True, they won’t be happy, but they’ll just have to do it. Don’t take all of this to heart.” He paused. “Have you stopped the rain from getting into the organ?”

“Yes. Bob’s sorted the roof leak above it.”

“Good. I’ll send a chap out to look at the damage to the organ. It might just be damp. We had similar issues with the one in the cathedral. Leave it to me.”

His caring, reassuring touch was having an effect on her at last. She relaxed and allowed a grin to break through her current miserable outlook.

“Have you ever tried giving a Sunday sermon with no roof, with an organist who hits the wrong keys, and the sound of munching coming from what rafters are left?”

“See it as a challenge,” Neil said. “Teach the termites to sing in tune. With luck they’ll drown out the sound of the organist.”

She gave him a playful arm punch.

“You’re supposed to be empathetic and show understanding.”

“That’s actually the real reason for my visit, Sam. Sunday…as soon as you’re finished here, get yourself over to my place for lunch.”

Sam could only think of her workload and started to decline, but Neil interrupted.

“This is not an offer you can refuse. Miriam has requested your presence. If you don’t come, my life will be misery. You know what she’s like.”

They looked at each with understanding. Miriam, Neil’s wife, was a larger-than-life character with a huge heart and warm sense of humor. But she was not a woman to be messed with.

“What time?” Sam asked.

“About one.”

*

Brandon Finch, head of production, stood in his office and stared at Joey. His face was a mixture of anger and disappointment.

“Fuck it, Joey. That was crap.” Everything about his Barney Rubble stature oozed frustration.

“I froze.”

“Again.” Finch eyeballed her as he popped a small mint into his mouth. A look of disgust crossed his grizzled face. Joey didn’t know if it was for her or the mint. He was a bear since he’d given up smoking.

She’d let him down in the live televised political show last night. It had been billed as an unmissable debate between the sharpest of minds on the role of the U.S. in the rapidly escalating problems in the Middle East and the rise of insurgents. Key opposition politicians, former advisors to Republican and Democratic secretaries of state, senior policy and program advisers, and a number of senior fellows at the Center for American Progress had all taken part. Joey’s role had been to chair the debate. She’d make a complete mess of it, and the broadcast company had been overwhelmed by complaints.

“That was a live broadcast. I can’t have that,” Finch snapped.

“It’s just a bad day. I’m sorry.” Joey’s apology was wet, and Finch knew it.

“Like before, eh, when you froze on national television while interviewing Senator Braddock? At least you eventually managed to ask him the most inane questions.”

That time the public had been forgiving, the TV station less so. The previous night had been Joey’s last chance to redeem herself and shine again.

“Not good enough. You were the ideal person as moderator. Public sympathy was with you and the respect of those debating. But fuck, I could have employed a sixteen-year-old studying political science and they would have done a better job.” Finch shook his head and walked to the huge window that looked down over the city.

“When I took you on, I told you I’d never hired anyone so in tune with the public mood, so able to communicate with them. You reached out well. Shit, you were in their living rooms, sitting on their sofas.”

“Past tense?”

“Whatever you had, you haven’t got it now.” Finch turned to face her and hesitated. “Look, what happened to you out there in Balshir was beyond hell, and I can’t begin to imagine how you’re coping with it, but—”

“You’re firing me,” Joey said.

“No. But I do want you to fuck off and go find your mojo again. When you do, come back, and we’ll start over.”

“And if I can’t?”

“Adios, Joey. I’m not in this business as a charity. We make lots of money selling news. You know that. If you can’t bring the bucks in, I don’t need you.”

“This isn’t right.”

“I’d have to agree with you, but that’s life. I hired you to do a job which you now don’t seem able to do.” He spat the mint into his hand and threw it, along with the box it had come from, into the trash can. “Come on. This can’t be entirely unexpected…not after last night.”

Joey said nothing. She wasn’t the same since her rescue by pro-Syrian forces fifteen months ago. Physically, she was fine, but mentally? Now she panicked every time she stood in front of a camera. She was on a downhill escalator and didn’t know how to get off. Counseling wasn’t helping.

“Okay.” Finch reached into the trash can and retrieved the box of mints. He hesitated and then popped another mint into his mouth. He looked at her and the hardness on his face gave way to an uncustomary softness. “I’m not totally without heart. It’s rare, but…” He moved back to his desk and leaned on it. “You’ve got family in England, right?”

The conversational move puzzled Joey. Where was this going?

“My mother’s sister…my aunt. She lives in Worcestershire.”

“I’ve got a contact in Birmingham…guy runs Stallion Films Production for the BBC. I’ve asked him if he wants a screwed up news correspondent on his team for a while.” Finch shrugged. “He said yeah.”

“Doing what?” It was difficult to keep the annoyance out of her voice when everything was falling around her.

“You’d be acting as consultant. They produce a lot of geopolitical documentaries.”

For the first time, he looked at her with affection. “Go out there, Joey. Stay with your aunt…whatever. Study the English for a while. That’ll take your mind off things and keep you busy. They’re so far up their own asses they can’t even flip eggs right, but I hear the natives are friendly.”

“Do I have any say in this?”

“You do not. There are a lot of wolves out there baying for your blood right now. This’ll keep them away…give you time.”

Finch was protecting her.

“When do I leave?” she asked.

“Last night. Three seconds after the debate ended.”

Chapter Three

Sam was dog-tired but didn’t go straight to bed. It was that type of tired where she wouldn’t sleep anyway. Instead she ran herself a glass of water from the kitchen sink and just stood there. She studied herself in the little mirror her housekeeper kept on the windowsill. It made Sam smile. Gloria was in her seventies and a conundrum, a riddle to be solved.

She’d been widowed twelve years ago when her husband had died of alcohol poisoning at a beer festival. She had answered the job advert for housekeeper to earn extra cash. The job didn’t pay well, but Gloria stayed. Gloria didn’t have a religious bone in her body and thought all church stuff was humbug. Yet she worked at the vicarage.

Four years ago when Sam came to this parish and asked the outgoing vicar about Gloria, he had simply held her hands in his and said, “God will reward you in heaven.”

Sam never knew what mood Gloria would be in from hour to hour, but she worked like a Trojan and kept the small vicarage spick-and-span. She’d also started cooking for Sam on occasion, a requirement not in her terms of reference. Sam often felt she was being mothered. Gloria wasn’t one to hesitate to chastise her for anything from leaving toothpaste on the porcelain sink to eating proper food at correct meal times. It seemed that they liked each other.

Sam stared at herself in the mirror. She was tired and it showed. Damn, she was at that age where everything was starting to show. She spotted a couple of gray hairs prodding out like beacons in her hair, and there was a mass of laughter lines, crow’s feet, at the corners of her eyes. When had they appeared? But at least it was evidence that she could laugh. Her sense of humor had always been her greatest ally and something her parishioners seemed to like. She could even make Gloria laugh—sometimes. Not an easy task.

Sunday lunch with Neil, Miriam, and their four teenage offspring had been delightful. Her plans to return home late afternoon to work had been foiled. Lunch morphed into cozy drinks in the garden, and then an invite to stay for supper. Before she knew it, the day was over, and the time late.

But even the wonderful day did nothing to remove the emptiness she felt inside. Sam was feeling increasingly hopeless and trapped.

She’d heard the call of God early in her years and answered it. For that, she was a woman who had spent her life alone. Perhaps her busy work, dedication, or youthful energy had buffered and protected her from that fact, but lately the safety nets had weakened. For several years, a need grew in her. She wanted something more—for her. She wanted personal fulfillment beyond religion.

What had triggered that new calling?

The letter.

It was more of a note, handwritten and by someone struggling to hold a pen.

The letter had arrived one morning, its words scrawled and uneven.

And it had been unexpected.

Louise had written it.

She was asking to see Sam, but not as a parishioner seeking the comfort of religion before dying of incurable cancer. This was the call of a lover—a past lover.

Louise was the woman Sam had walked away from all those years ago when she finally made the choice between love and faith.

They had ended badly.

Louise had not taken Sam’s choice well. She had told her to leave and never darken her doorstep again. Sam had tried many times to repair the damage but always failed.

This was the first time Louise had asked for her, and Sam had not hesitated in going to the hospice where she was in the last throes of life. The nurses told her she didn’t have long.

“I didn’t think you’d come,” Louise had said.

“Why would you think that?” Sam answered with warmth as she sat beside the bed where Louise lay.

“I was awful to you that last time. I shouldn’t have been.”

Sam shook her head and smiled. “You had plenty to be upset about…and you were angry.”

“You don’t hate me then?”

“I could never hate you.” She looked into Louise’s eyes, once so full of spirit, but now dull. Everything Louise did was an effort—breathing, staying awake, talking.

“Thank you for coming. I wanted to see you again before…”

Sam reached out and held her hand.

“Are you in much pain?”

“Not really. Sometimes. The staff are good. For the most, they keep the pain away.”

Sam felt Louise grip her hand tighter.

“Have you been happy?” Sam prayed she would say yes.

“I have. It’s been a good life. Just wish it could be longer, but that’s not to be. I’ve had a good run and met some wonderful people.” Louise stopped as she labored for air. “But I’ve never loved as I loved you. I was so angry when you chose the church over me. The only woman I’ve ever loved, and I lose her to someone I can’t even see…God. You can’t compete with that.” Her laugh was weak. It turned into a groan.

“Should I get someone?” Sam hated seeing her like this.

“No, it passes.”

Louise couldn’t speak after that, and Sam placed their conversation on hold. She stayed seated by her, hand in hand until Louise was able to talk again.

“Don’t let it pass you by,” Louise said.

“What?”

“Life and love, Sam.” She gasped for air. “You must live life. God is fine, but make sure you leave a little in your heart for love.” Louise looked at her with such softness. “I think God would be okay with that.”

Sam was thinking how to reply when two nurses entered. They asked her to leave for a short while.

When she returned to the bedside, Louise was less responsive. Her breathing was more labored, and a nurse told Sam it wouldn’t be long now. Louise never spoke again, but her eyes never left Sam’s face.

“Would you like me to say a prayer?” Sam whispered.

A small shake of the head indicated no, but Louise moved her hand into Sam’s.

Sam held it between both of hers and, as she stayed there waiting for the inevitable, she remembered the past and of how much she’d loved Louise. The decision to choose the church over Louise had not been easy. Sam pressed the hand to her lips and kissed it. She only left when the hand loosened its grip on hers, and she knew Louise was gone.

Sam wasn’t the same after her death.

She went through the motions, did everything she always did. Outwardly, she remained the same upbeat vicar that made the parishioners laugh. But inside she was different. She closed down, and in the times when she wasn’t administering to everyone else’s problems and issues, she sat at home and stared at the walls.

Louise’s words had hit home.

Sam loved God. She felt his power in all she did. There would not be a day in her life when she would doubt him. Her life was full…really full at the moment. She was respected by churchgoers, those she dealt with, and by the church. She’d been made a canon, an honorary title bestowed for faithful and valuable service to the church. There was no bigger accolade unless you sought the highest of position…bishop, and beyond. She never had. She liked the root contact with the masses.

But for all the room God occupied in her heart, there was a void. It was an empty space that was growing, and her vocation no longer filled it. Now she felt her calling was pulling her in the wrong direction.

“Leave a little space for life…and love.” Louise’s words echoed.

Sam placed the empty glass in the sink.

“Living life isn’t that easy, Louise.”

Chapter Four

Sam glanced at her watch and then pulled at her shirt. She was wearing a new black one along with a whiter than white clerical collar. The shirt was too tight and chafing at her neck. Wearing a cassock wasn’t helping. The long robe was something she only wore for formal worship or ceremonial occasions. But the journalist from the radio station had said she wanted photos for the online magazine, and this forced Sam to put a little extra effort into her ecclesiastical attire.

She looked at her watch again. Damn, where was that reporter? Carrie Marlow had already canceled their first appointment a few days ago. The station had called at the last minute and given no reason. Now she was over an hour late for this one.

Normally, Sam wasn’t a clock watcher, but she’d almost finished everything she wanted to do at the church before the wedding ceremony tomorrow. Her plan was to drop in at the local hospital on her way home to see a member of the congregation who wasn’t doing so well. Apart from the interview, Sam was only hanging on until Elsa turned up with the flowers. Once she knew they were sorted, she could leave. She’d give Carrie another half an hour.

In the meantime, she studied the chancel area in the church which was now camouflaged to hide renovations. Bob had gone to huge lengths to conceal everything so tomorrow’s matrimonial big day would not be spoilt. He was a rough diamond, and she was growing very fond of him. Despite his less than pitch-perfect sense of humor, he really was trying to make everything as painless as possible. Her volunteer helpers were doing the same. She watched them bouncing around the church like demented lemmings as they prepared it and laid out hymn books in the pews. She might not have much of a roof, but everything inside was beginning to look fantastic.

The sun was shining as Joey quick marched toward the huge arched porch and doorway into St. Mary’s church. She was already regretting volunteering to help out her mom’s sister, Auntie Elsa, a member of the church’s congregation, and who she was now staying with. Joey had quickly discovered that Elsa had a gift. She could throw flowers together and create stunning feasts for the eyes which was why Joey was delivering a van load of flower arrangements for a wedding the next day. Elsa had taken a fall and Joey had wanted to help out, but it was the drive that was daunting.

She could have been here five minutes ago but for a chain of stupid “roundabouts” that left her figuring which way to go around them. The only rotary she knew was in DuPont Circle in DC, and she loathed that too. And why did the Brits have to drive on the wrong side of the road when most of Europe had gotten it right?

As she walked into the church, an austere looking woman who was attentively laying a crisp white cloth on a table looked at her over half-moon glasses balanced partway down a thin nose.

“Hi. I’m looking for Reverend Savage,” Joey said.

“You’re late,” the woman said as she pointed out the vicar who stood at the far end of the aisle.

Joey didn’t hover and made her way toward the dark, menacing shape farther down. The vicar had her back to her and appeared like a demonic apparition who was studying floor to ceiling thick plastic sheeting that was protecting the church from the restorations that were going on behind. As she drew closer, the vicar turned and Joey caught the sweep of shoulder-length auburn hair.

“I was expecting you earlier,” the vicar said.

The statement took Joey back. Hell, these Brits were impatient. She’d driven here straightaway on Auntie Elsa’s request.

“I came as soon as I could.”

The vicar’s eyes widened. “You’re American. I didn’t know.”

They were also quick, Joey thought with sarcasm.

“You’re a woman. I didn’t know that either. I was expecting a man,” Joey said.

The vicar looked taken aback but then shrugged.

“Well, no matter, you’re here now and in one bit. I was getting a little worried that something might have happened to you.”

“No. I’m all in one bit.” Joey wasn’t warming to her.

“It’s just I’m on a bit of a tight schedule today, and I’ve got a lot to be getting on with.”

“So have I,” Joey said.

“You could have let me know you’d been delayed.”

“I’m not, and I’m doing you the favor.”

The Reverend Savage went to say something but thought better of it. Instead she nodded.

“I suppose you are. Where’s your stuff?”

Joey thought of the mass of flowers. “Outside in the van.”

“Okay. How do you want to play this?”

“I thought you’d tell me.” Joey’s answer seemed to confuse the vicar. How difficult was it to organize flowers?

“Well, would you like me to show you around the church first?”

“Not really, Reverend. I’ll just bring it all in.” She glanced down, and something about the vicar’s attire caught her eye. “You’re wearing jeans.”

The statement seemed to amuse.

“I’m wearing a cassock over my jeans.”

“Why?” Joey hadn’t seen a denim wearing vicar in church before.

“Because of you.”

“Me?”

“The photo.”

“What photo?”

“I understand you want a photograph of me.”

Joey straightened. Something wasn’t quite right here. She started to smile. “Tempting, but not really.”

Reverend Savage frowned. “You are from the BBC?”

“Yeah. How do you know that?” Joey had listened to Elsa’s voice mail to the vicar. She hadn’t mentioned that. Maybe Elsa had spoken of her new job with Stallion Productions earlier, but then surely she’d have also mentioned she was American.

“Your station called and arranged this appointment,” the vicar clarified.

“My station?”

Joey was about to say that they must have their wires crossed when a man approached Reverend Savage and handed her a cell phone.

“You left it in the vestry, Sam.”

“Thanks.” The vicar stared at its flashing lights before turning gray eyes on Joey. “I’ve got a couple of messages. Would you mind if I check them? One of my parishioners is ill in hospital. It might be news.”

“Please, go ahead.”

Joey heard both messages as clear as if she’d held the cell to her own ear.

Vicar, it’s Elsa Morris. There’s no problem, but I’ve sprained my ankle and can’t drive. Don’t worry. I’m getting my niece to drop the flower arrangements off. She should be at the church in about an hour. Lydia and Kelvin know where they are all going so they’ll sort everything. The flowers look beautiful. They’ll need a light spray of water in the morning and should look stunning for tomorrow’s wedding. Again, Lydia knows what to do. Any dramas, just ring.”

The vicar locked eyes with Joey.

Hi. This is a message for Reverend Canon Savage. Reverend, this is Carrie from BBC Radio WM. I’m so sorry, but I’m going to have to cancel the interview for a second time. I’m caught in a dreadful traffic jam on the motorway, and I don’t think I’ll be going anywhere fast. I don’t want to mess you around so I’ll get back to you later, and hopefully we can reschedule. Believe it or not, I’m really looking forward to meeting you, and hearing about the church. I’ll be in touch. Bye.”

When finished, the emissary of God looked at her again, this time her eyes twinkled.

“Let’s start again,” the vicar said. “Why are you here?”

Joey grinned. “I’m here to deliver flowers. I’m Elsa’s niece, Josephine Barry. You didn’t get her message, did you?”

“Nope.” The vicar guiltily raised the phone and shook it in front of them. “I thought you were the reporter from BBC WM, here to interview me about the church appeal.” She threw Joey a huge smile as she stuck her hand out. “I’m Samantha Savage, Josephine. Lovely to meet you, and please call me Sam…everyone else does.”

Joey relaxed. She was beginning to recognize the frazzled look of stress around Sam’s eyes. It made her more forgiving. “Call me Joey. I’m glad we’ve sorted the confusion out.”

“Me, too. I see now why you didn’t want my photograph. I felt quite slighted.”

Joey started to laugh. “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

“No damage done. I have a hide like a buffalo.” Sam’s eyes narrowed in fun. “And I wear jeans because they’re comfortable, and it doesn’t pay to be too formal in this line of work. I think most parishioners prefer it to the more starchy appearance one normally expects of my lot. I stick to the shirt and dog collar, but the rest is relaxed.”

“I see.” Joey didn’t really. Her mother was a churchgoer back home, and in all the countries her own work had taken her to, Joey had always found the different articles of clerical clothing like a personal assault course. She only knew she liked this vicar better when she smiled.

Sam was giving her a friendly tap on her arm.

“Shall we get those flowers in before they wilt in this heat?”

*

Elsa answered the door with a smile and a walking stick. She leaned on it, and Sam could see the heavy bandaging on her foot. In the background was piano music. It was light and precise, expert fingers producing a calming effect.


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